“As a teenager, I’d rush home from school to practice applying makeup, I was obsessed. I’d try myriad looks all at the same time to hone my technique – think one smokey eye, one neutral eye; one side would be contoured to perfection, while I’d apply blush on the apple of my other cheek. My mother often said she wished I was more dedicated to my homework!”
This beauty “confession” from influencer and beauty guru Amerley Ollennu is probably one that a lot of us relate to. Certainly, as a teenager, experimenting with makeup is part of learning who you are and how you express yourself, something that, controversially, many women still state as the main reason they wear makeup. Ollennu agrees, “I used my imagination and tapped into my creativity when learning what suited me best. There were some real shockers; a pink smokey eye is probably not the most suitable look to go to school in! But I loved how it made me feel daring and empowered.”
Feminism and makeup
I say “controversially” because, traditionally, feminism sought to liberate women from the shackles of having to wear makeup and prettify themselves for the male gaze. Think of Seventies feminists who famously eschewed makeup, cut their hair short and, of course, burned their bras as a symbol of banishing patriarchal symbols of femininity to the past. However, the past forty years have seen a change of mood as us modern-day feminists embrace the feelings of empowerment and self-expression that beauty rituals and makeup trends can give us.
Makeup artist and wellbeing coach Lee Pycroft agrees: “Beauty is a form of self-care. In order to be our best, we must invest in ourselves physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.”
Whether that’s making time for the gym, listening to our favorite podcast on the way to work or taking the time to choose the perfect blush-rose shade of lipstick that makes us smile every time we slick it on, it’s empowering. It’s us taking a moment out of the day to prioritize our feelings and desires above the hundreds of things we do daily for others as modern women – from working through our lunch breaks to remembering which shade of yellow our mother-in-law prefers when choosing her birthday gift.
“Makeup rituals provide us with an opportunity to be with ourselves, to get creative with a look and to explore our individual beauty,” adds Pycroft. “It’s our time to slow down and connect with ourselves on a deeper level.”
The geisha’s art of beauty
Women have, of course, been wearing makeup for centuries. In traditional Japanese culture, the art of makeup and conjuring up an image of beauty, harmony and grace, of the sort normally found in nature, was an essential part of being a geisha. During the Heian era (794-1185 AD), Japanese geishas used rice powder mixed with water to form a thin layer of paste as a foundation. Bold brows were prized, so geishas would remove their natural eyebrows and paint thick, straight, false ones high on their forehead. Finally, lips were painted a deep red. The entire process was a painstaking one, with the lip color extracted from flowers infused in water, then covered in crystallized sugar to add luster.
Two years ago, my sister, living in Tokyo, met one of Japan’s most legendary geishas, Ikuko Nadeshiko. “Despite being 75 her skin was virtually line-free,” my sister told me in amazement. “The most astonishing thing about her, though, wasn’t just her physical beauty, it was her presence, her grace. Ikuko’s artful makeup was part of that allure; her deep, blood-red lips and calligraphic eyeliner had obviously been applied with razor-sharp precision. That sort of attention to detail is inspiring.”
Indeed, the ritualistic process of applying makeup can be compared as akin to your daily yoga practice; defined and precise movements, repeated every morning, with each flowing into the next. Personally, I find my morning makeup application as time to breathe and collect my thoughts before the busy day. Having to concentrate on something physical and yet relatively undemanding, such as lining my lips or blending my foundation, feels very meditative.
Makeup and happiness
“Personally, I wear makeup when I am either happy, or when I want to be. For me, it is a positive thing,” says makeup artist Kay Montano, who works with Hollywood stars including Thandie Newton. Celebrating diversity in beauty, Montano was the inspiration behind Newton working with her natural hair texture, which, in turn, inspired mixed-race women all over the globe to stop relaxing their hair. Growing up in West London, Montano has always been surrounded by diversity when it comes to beauty role models. “I never grew up thinking there was a right or wrong way to approach makeup or beauty. It should be about feeling good about yourself and about attitude.”
When used to enhance what nature has given you, and in the service of making you feel good about yourself, wearing makeup is about celebrating your individuality, rather than conforming to other people’s expectations – and that’s immensely liberating. As Ollennu admits, “Beauty is about balance. When makeup is taken to the extreme, one can lose sight of the ‘real you’. When used wisely, the feel-good benefits are immeasurable.”